Category Archives: journalism

Rain, rent and raising money for braces

Dressed in her Halloween best, Veeka vamps it up a bit with her candy around her. She did learn one does not trick or treat in heels.

Dressed in her Halloween best, Veeka vamps it up a bit with her candy around her. She did learn one does not trick or treat in heels.

I’m happy to say that a GoFundMe campaign I started a few weeks ago to raise funds for Veeka’s braces-to-come has brought in $1,100. The bad news: I have another $5-$6K to go! I really didn’t want to go this route, but after being unemployed for more than 18 months (other than freelance and substitute teaching gigs), desperate times call for desperate measures. Because of a tooth that is ravaging her gums, she not only has to have braces, but also some minor surgery to get that tooth back into position. Sigh. My health insurance – which goes up 25% in 2017 – only pays for braces for medical reasons, ie birth defects.
And so I’ve told friends that I need to raise at least $2,000 to call up the orthodontist and sign the contract for two years of braces. I realize that not all can or feel led to give, but if you do, feel free to click on the above link. As I’ve been agonizing over which health insurance to choose for 2017, I am trying to squelch feelings of panic at the thought of the incoming presidential administration doing away with Obamacare. On the other hand, it feels as though insurance companies have already abandoned it, as they are getting queasier and queasier about covering anything.
Meanwhile, the rich keep on getting richer in Seattle. The median income here is now $80K.
I wonder: How many of those people with supposedly higher salaries are over 50? That’s where the real unemployment is. Past a certain age, it’s impossible to get a 9-5 job that pays more than $15/hour. Try living on that.

Veeka also got new glasses this fall because we've discovered she is farsighted.

Veeka also got new glasses this fall because we’ve discovered she is farsighted.

Or, $20/hour is what local school districts pay emergency subs, which is a good way to pick up some money if you have a degree but no teaching certificate. That’s what I’m doing two days a week, but compared to what I used to make, it isn’t much, folks. Even full-time public school teachers often only  make in the $40s around here. That’s nuts.
As many of you know, one of the many ways I eke out a living is to do freelance writing. I was on a conference call today (Dec. 12) with a group of other religion reporters and we were talking about how tough it is to sell your pieces for good money.
Try getting paid more than, say, $300, max $400 for a 1,200-word story. That’s about 30-40 cents a word. (The decent pay is $1/word for those of you not in the know.) I’ve been amazed at the low rates publications in the Seattle area pay people, considering the expense of living here.
Nevertheless, I’ve come out with three pieces since I last blogged. This piece on Jim Eichner, a local Episcopal priest who runs a food bank, came out in the November issue of 425, a magazine for Seattle’s Eastside. Yes, Jim is the same priest who was at my dad’s bed side right before he died. Then, the Washington Post ran two of my travel pieces two weekends in a row. This piece on cross-country skiing in the Methow Valley ran the weekend of Nov. 11 and my grand-circle-around-British-Columbia piece ran the following weekend. So…I am selling more travel than religion pieces.

Veeka and her little first-cousin-once-removed Wyatt relaxing at Oma's.

Veeka and her little first-cousin-once-removed Wyatt at Oma’s.

Meanwhile, there’s plenty of articles out there about house prices that continue to soar.
In late October, my brother Rob and his wife, Jan, moved from Maryland to Washington, choosing to settle somewhere on the Kitsap peninsula where the weather is a lot better than here! They chose a place in the fast-growing retirement haven of Sequim, and managed to grab a place that’s being built now. They felt lucky to get that. Nearly everyone I know is renting. No one can afford to buy. Well, I do have a friend who just bought a townhome near me and he paid a cool half a million to get it. Maybe the top 1% is doing well here, but there’s a lot of us who aren’t.
It’s been a quiet fall for us, with just one trip out of town to Portland to attend a banquet for Good Samaritan Ministries on Nov. 5. Veeka has started fifth grade and we squeezed in after-school hikes and swims in local lakes before the weather went south on us. And it looks like it’s going to be another record breaker for rain this season. While Alaska enjoys almost historically warm temps, we’ve had record-breaking rainfall. Veeka and I grimly joke that we’re both gaining weight because we get no exercise on the weekends because it’s always a.) raining and b.) cold.

Right off the TV screen: Election night 2016

Right off the TV screen: Election night 2016

As for other things: The election? Totally shocked, as everyone else was. I’m in the weird place of being glad Hillary lost but not overjoyed that Trump won, especially since he looks to be trying to dismantle half the federal agencies in one swoop. He’ll have one enemy in me if he touches healthcare. I will say I was beyond amused at the stunned looks on many of the TV anchors’ faces as the returns came in and it was clear that Hillary was not sweeping the country – or the Electoral College – as we thought would happen. So many in the media totally misread the mood of the country. I wish I could say that, one month later, I see a difference in coverage but I don’t. I mean, you have New York Times editor Dean Baquet saying they need to cover religion far more than they do. Well, no kidding. But until I see the want ads go up for an extra handful of religion reporters at the Times, I won’t believe a word he says. I heard similar breast beating back in 2004 when George Bush beat John Kerry and everyone wondered what hole those Protestant evangelicals had crawled out of. In December 2004, I wrote a column for Poynter.org using “It’s the hiring, stupid,” instead of the better-known saying “It’s the economy, stupid,” to point out that media organizations have been stinting on good religion coverage for a long time. I named names, calling out specific newspapers that had either left the beat empty or hired ingénues for the beat instead of seasoned reporters, making for some pretty clueless stories. Meanwhile, they scoured the country to hire for beats they considered more important like health, tech and real estate. So, of course they miss what’s really going on by a mile.

The road to Nome

There are certain times here in Alaska where you feel you’re in the midst of a huge fairytale; when, for

Mitch Seavey coming in 2nd in the Iditarod

Mitch Seavey coming in 2nd in the Iditarod at about 8 a.m.

instance, you’re standing outside after midnight and the northern lights decides to put on a display of huge green sky designs for you. That was last night. The lights were supposed to be very active, so I dragged Veeka to a park 5 miles out of town and…no lights! We’d just returned and she was sleepy and grouchy and it was 12:30 a.m. when – poof – a bunch of green swirls shot through the heavens. The past two weeks have been busy in that I got a 2-day trip to Nome in the midst of spring break. It had to do with a magazine article I’m writing on someone and she was flying to Nome to see the close of the Iditarod. So I booked a flight and talked a B&B into putting me up (as all the lodgings in town were booked out) and so I flew there, leaving the little one with a sitter in Fairbanks. Nome is a totally different experience than Fairbanks or Anchorage. It’s a town of 3,000 perched on Norton Sound leading to the Bering Sea. When I flew in, the top mushers were about 12 hours from the finish line. Sirens are supposed to go off when they come into town but either they didn’t go off or I slept through the arrival of the first-place winner, Dallas Seavey. Of course he did come in at 4:15 a.m. and all the bars were full of St.

View of Nome from 800+ feet up

View of Nome from 800+ feet up

Patrick’s Day revelers, so they emptied to see the winner. (Bars in Nome do not close until 5 a.m. This town takes its drinking seriously). Now I did get to see the 2nd-place musher – Mitch Seavey – come in. They have quite the set-up downtown with a huge arch and ramp to the finish line.
Had quite a few adventures that day. The person I was interviewing was not feeling at all well, but I managed to talk her into wandering about a craft fair at a local church. During the Iditarod, the Natives show up with ivory products, tons of stuff made of fur and other things that one can only buy in bush Alaska. Then a pilot I’d run into offered to take me up for a 2-hour spin around the area. It was a gorgeous sunny day with almost no wind, so I jumped at the opportunity but really, I’m not a good one for small planes! Every bump makes me grip the seat in terror. We first flew east to try to spot some mushing teams on their way to Nome. Then flew over the Kigluaik mountains, then over Teller and Brevig Mission (both small towns) and Port Clarence, the one deep-water port on the entire west coast of Alaska. Other than an out-of-commission Loran station there (that my parents once visited when my dad was the USCG admiral in Alaska), Port Clarence has no roads, infrastructure – nothing.

The plane (a Cessna 206 I think) that I flew on

The plane (a Cessna 206 I think) that I flew on

Then I called up the local mayor (whom I’d previously told I’d like to drop in for an interview) and so I showed up at her house just at dinner time, so she served me meatloaf and white wine and we had a lovely time.
The next morning, I got up early and went to the beach to see one of the mushers come in. It was actually quite beautiful to see the dog team coming along the beach and into town. A bunch of us stood and clapped as the musher – Martin Buser – pulled onto a main drag – he asked us to help untangle his dogs who had their ropes in knots so I stepped forward. And then he pulled onto the main drag and a police car accompanied him into town to the finish line. I met one family from Minneapolis who had brought their boy – who looked about Veeka’s age and the kid had saved money for two years to be there – and once you start getting to know the mushers and some of their personal histories, I can see how this stuff would be quite addicting.
Then I dropped by the house of a couple with a home overlooking the finish line and they host mushers for huge meals after they finish their races. (The musher whom I’d watched come up from the beach was there chowing down with his friends). This couple had walls dripping with furs, whale baleen and tons of other art. It was a corner of Alaska that I didn’t think I’d get to visit, and it was beyond fortunate that the timing was during spring break.

Me at Skiland. The camera is looking east.

Me at Skiland. The camera is looking east.

The light keeps on getting brighter and the weather keeps on getting warmer. Went skiing yesterday at Skiland, a place 20 miles north of Fairbanks on the Steese Highway (leading to a town called Circle on the Yukon River) that has the northern-most ski lift in the country. Again, a gorgeous, sunny day. Veeka doesn’t downhill ski, so I’ll leave her in the lodge where she happily draws or reads for a few hours while I hit the slopes. It is getting near “break-up time” when the rivers start to flow again. Near us is something called the Nenana Ice Classic with a jackpot of $363,627. You buy tickets and guess exactly when the Tenana River coursing through the small town of Nenana will start cracking. There is a tripod on the river attached to a timer. In 1917, railroad engineers spent $800 guessing when the river would break up and now the Ice Classic is in its 98th year. And today I joined a writer’s critique group that meets once a month at the local library. I brought a portion of a young adult novel I’m working on and listened to works by four other writers. One had a science fiction story based in Alaska; another had an apocalyptic scenario that involves a man on a boat adrift in the Bering Sea; a third was a poet and the fourth had a story about bush Alaska. The second man was telling me about driving the Haul Road, a 500-mile gravel road that goes north from Fairbanks almost to Prudhoe Bay through some fantastic scenery. I hope to go up it this summer and this man has driven it a bunch of times, but always in a heavy-duty truck. We agreed that my Subaru wouldn’t make it 5 miles on that road before blowing out two tires and getting rocks through the windshield. Fortunately there’s tour groups that take people up although it’s not cheap.

Mushers and the ides of March

Am not sure of the name of this musher, but I caught his entire ensemble (in orange) with Ollie and a friend in the foreground.

Am not sure of the name of this musher, but I caught his entire ensemble (in orange) with Ollie and a friend in the foreground.

Tomorrow I’ll get to watch the finish of the Iditarod in Nome on Alaska’s west coast. But it was fun to catch the start as well. I went with my daughter’s 3rd grade class to the front yard of a classmate. The musher’s trail ran right in front of their house, so we all stood there and shivered and drank hot chocolate and ate hot dogs. Lots of folks were standing around watching each dog-laden sled. Some of the mushers had on crazy hats and nearly all waved to us and we yelled out encouragement. We stuck around for the first 30 mushers but after an hour, the kiddos were freezing, so we had to return to the bus. Would have liked to be closer to the starting line but it was a mob scene there and I heard later that the buses charted by the city got people there more than an hour after the start. If you’re interested in learning more, check out iditarod.com. It’s a race of about 1,000 miles through some really rough terrain in central Alaska and on the coast. As it turns out, I’m working on a magazine piece for The Washington Post that requires me to fly to Nome tomorrow (March 17) for the end of the race, so hopefully I’ll get to see the finishers. The mushers are moving so fast, I might miss the front

Musher Nicholas Petit is racing by us here.

Musher Nicholas Petit is racing by us here. Mushing in sub-zero temps is a lot harder than it looks.

runner, but I’m hoping to stand along Front Street and see some of the others. Veeka, aka Ollie, isn’t going with me but is staying in Fairbanks with a sitter. This week is spring break, so I’m taking a break myself to work on the aforementioned article plus my taxes (!) The latter is the most hated thing I do every March, but since I always get quite a bit of money back, it’s a necessary evil.
One thing I have gotten to do is ski one of the few local downhill ski places there are. This place was called Moose Mountain and you haven’t lived until you’ve skied when it’s 0ºF out! There’s a whole different feel to the air than when it’s in 20s or 30s. Your face just burns, as does your nose. You have to wear some kind of sunglasses or goggles, as your eyes get cold as well. There aren’t real high hills in Fairbanks, but Moose “Mountain” had some really nice hills and a 1,300-foot vertical drop. There was not a lift, but there were school buses that picked you up at the bottom and brought you to the top. Sounds kind of dumb but it worked quite nicely and gave us a chance to warm up on our way to the top (which you don’t get to do on a chairlift). The place was not crowded at all and I had some lovely runs through the birch trees in the late afternoon sun.
One nice piece of news I got last week is that I won a contest for best magazine reporting. There’s a group called the Religion Communicators Council and they award prizes called the Wilburs each year.

Me at Moose Mountain in 0-degree weather despite the sunshine.

Me at Moose Mountain in 0-degree weather despite the sunshine.

I’d done a piece for More magazine on Nadia Bolz-Weber and without my knowing it, More submitted my piece to the contest. I was up against all other writers for major national magazines and I came in first. This link explains it all. The awards ceremony is April 11 in the Washington DC area, so….I decided to go! I have just enough frequent flier miles to get there on two different airlines. Unfortunately I didn’t have enough for Ollie to come along so alas, she must stay with a sitter again. And no, More magazine didn’t offer to help out. My brother Steve won a Wilbur last year for his work for the Oregonian. I had won in the newspaper category in 2002, so I’ve been to their banquets before. They are very dressy affairs. And it will be SO pleasant to be in DC during all the cherry blossoms being out.

Starting on the AlCan

Montreal at dusk from the hill overlooking the city.

Montreal at dusk from the hill overlooking the city.

I was only a few days in the Seattle area when I had to fly to Montreal to deliver a paper and preside at another session at an AEJMC meeting which is for people who teach journalism. It’s a very large professional group and supposedly if you’re trying to break into this occupation, a presence at the AEJMC is required. I thought it rather clever that within a year of joining, I was presenting a paper (on the Facebook handlers of serpent handlers – no surprise there!) but also moderating a session about religion and pop culture. During my second day there, I was seated in the bar/snack area of the Sheraton (where the conference was) with my computer bag dangling on the back of my chair and my purse in front of me. I was talking with someone – about a job possibility in fact – and I felt the computer bag move. Weird, I thought. I felt the bag and it seemed a bit light. I looked – no computer. Surely it was hidden somewhere, I thought, jumping up and gazing inside. But to my horror, my $2,700 Apple laptop was gone.

The lovely interior of the Basilica of Notre Dame in old Montreal.

The lovely interior of the Basilica of Notre Dame in old Montreal.

Lord, what does one do at that point? I dashed toward the door of the hotel but what does one look for? A thief hardly stands there waving a silver laptop around. The person was surely outside of the hotel by the time I had jumped out of my chair. I dashed toward the front desk and they directed me to the security person who called the local police. Which was a good thing, because had I walked the 4 blocks to the police station, they would have ignored me but a call from the Sheraton security got an officer there quickly. I was out of my mind with worry, as my entire presentation for the next day was on that computer. Stupidly, I had not put a copy on a flash drive – was going to do that in the evening. And more stupidly, I had not backed up my computer to a hard drive in two weeks. Driving around the country, I’d been too tired and stressed and busy to get it done. And so many of the photos I took of our cross-country travels are lost forever.

A few hours later, the police officer dropped by a copy of his report at my hotel so I could have something to give the insurance company. Fortunately, they’d caught a good image of the guy on the hotel surveillance video although he’d put on a baseball cap before sidling up to me, seeing my computer bag was open and sliding his hand in, grabbing the laptop and throwing it into his own computer bag in one instant. Then he zoomed off just as my head turned and my hand felt the bag. (I learned this by deciphering the French in the report). Still, I had to trek over to the local Apple store (which fortunately was very close) to get the serial number of my computer from their records. All MacBook Pro laptops look alike, so the serial number is the only way I could prove it was mine. I was beyond depressed. Fortunately, my roommate had a Mac, so I was up late that night piecing together my speech (thank God my dad had printed out a copy before I left Seattle) and grabbing snake

Oma, Opa and Veeka

Oma, Opa and Veeka before we took off for Alaska

handler photos from emails that my friend John Morgan (who had photographed a bunch of them in May) had sent me. Am glad I never killed those emails. Sometimes it’s good to have 4,000+ emails in your files! My presentation went fine the next day and I’d include a photo but all the photos someone took of me made me look 101 years old with five double chins. That evening, to get my mind off my troubles, I jogged up the hill past McGill University and up the stairs to the “mont” that overlooks Montreal. An orchestra was playing Wagner and for a time, as downtown Montreal sank into the dusky twilight, I could lose myself in a performance of the “Liebstod” from “Tristan und Isolde.”

And the next day, I figured out the Montreal metro enough to get myself to the Notre Dame basilica in ‘vieux Montreal’ that I’d missed when we visited three years ago. The interior is known for its blue walls and ceilings and gold stars. There is a curious sculpture of an ascended Jesus crowning a kneeling Mary atop the reredos (behind the main altar). Have never seen anything like it before. It was a Friday afternoon, when the organist practices and fortunately he played Widor’s Toccata in F, a grand march, although he rushed through it, to my chagrin. Before long, I was on a plane back home and the next day I was at the Apple store in Bellevue, plunking down a whole lot more money I had not budgeted for. The mess with having to buy a new one and bring that computer up to speed delayed me a day, although it was nice spending the extra time with my parents and their two kitties,

My mom and the fluffier of one of their two cats, who has a habit of plunking herself atop of whatever piece of work my parents are working on at a given time.

My mom and the fluffier of one of their two cats, who has a habit of plunking herself atop of whatever piece of work my parents are working on at a given time.

who were not happy with the fact that my kitty was camped on my parents’ porch/balcony for almost 10 days. I was going to put Serenity up at a local PetSmart but one of the clerks decided at the last minute she didn’t like the look of my kitty – who she swore was going to bite her – and at the last minute I was told they wouldn’t lodge her. I was beyond furious, as it was 6:30 in the evening and I’d spent the entire day driving across Washington state and I was hot and tired. Fortunately my dad thought up the idea of the kitty camping out on their porch. The next day, I spent overseeing the moving of all my worldly possessions into storage nearby. Another event was that my niece Lindsay (with husband Jason) had their first child while we were there. Several other factors filled up my days and thus it was not until this past Tuesday (the 12th) that Veeka and I got on I-405 and headed north. With an adult, an elderly cat and a 9-year-old in the car, we’re not the fastest travelers as I’m the only driver and I get tired. Took us 3 hours to get across the border, then the drive east of Abbotsford to Hope was really lovely through several gorges. Then we headed north along the Fraser River, stopping at the Cariboo Lodge in Clinton. It was as good as the folks on Trip Advisor said (I really lean on those ratings).

On Wednesday, we headed further north along the Fraser tracing the route of gold prospectors who were there in the 1850s following the California Gold Rush. I didn’t know that British Columbia also had gold; thought that was limited to California and Alaska but apparently not. The most pleasant stop of the day was in Quesnel, a small town where we visited Pinnacles Provincial Park, a piece of

Seeing a 13-year-old rappel at Pinnacles Provincial Park, Veeka realizes that rock climbing could be cool.

Seeing a 13-year-old rappel at Pinnacles Provincial Park, Veeka realizes that rock climbing just might be cool.

woodland outside of town overlooking volcanic hoodoos. At this point, Veeka was in a bad mood and didn’t want to walk through the woods until – we came on some Dutch folks rappelling down the very steep slope. Being that a 13-year-old was jumping off the mountain – and only attached to ropes – for the first time, Veeka was beyond fascinated and was glued to the fence for at least an hour watching them. Need to get that girl started on a climbing wall, yes. Afterwards, we returned to Quesnel’s famous footbridge over the Fraser, the world’s longest wooden truss walking bridge. It was a delight walking across it in the late afternoon.

Getting to Prince George, which is the major city in central British Columbia, we stayed at the Carmel Lodge, then found a local swimming pool where Veeka and I had the best time splashing about. In fact, we’ve found local pools two nights in a row (near where we are staying tonight in Fort St. John too) where we’ve been able to enjoy a wave pool and hot tubs. As the hotel receptionist explained tonight, there’s not a whole lot else to do around here (especially in the winter) for kids, so many of the towns have really nice swimming centers. Earlier today we ended up in Dawson Creek, which is Point Zero for the Alaska-Canada Highway and where the museum had a really cool hour-long film explaining the amazing construction of this road during World War II. Even though we’ve had good weather this trip, the skies were hazy with smoke from forest fires to the west. So far, the drive has gone well, with side trips to Tim Horton shops, occasional gas fill-ups (it’s about $5.20/gallon here). Veeka and I are listening to a tape of “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” to help the miles roll by.

Creeping towards the end

I’m seated on my daughter’s bed, tired beyond tired, trying to get in my last social media assignment before the midnight deadline. Not that the instructor is watching; rumor is that the on-campus students (my class was part online and part in person) got to have a party at her house. Maybe they are still partying? Not I: I am trying to get my 9-year-old to sleep. The last party I was at was at a professor’s home in Boulder during that conference I spoke at @the University of Colorado. The desserts and tables groaning with food were to die for but I was exhausted and simply not in the mood to chat with anyone. Parties are nice if you know lots of people there. I did not. It’s been ages since I’ve been at a party I enjoyed.

Trying out her jump rope: my active child finds it hard to sleep at night.

Trying out her jump rope: my active child finds it hard to sleep at night.

But I digress: This week’s topic is curation; that is, how you as a user of social media gather interesting posts and forward them onto your friends and contacts. How do I curate info? All of my life, I’ve taken news and information I’ve heard from people at the edges and made it mainstream. For instance, there are groups that deserve a voice, but they’re not going to have much of one unless a reporter discovers them and puts them on the map. The most prominent example of my doing that was my April 2012 Wall Street Journal piece on Andrew Hamblin, the 21-year-old Facebook-using Pentecostal serpent handler. The article truly put him on the map and brought reality shows and tons of other media to his door. I do some curation through my Facebook account when I see articles that are stuck in some lonely web site that need to be brought to the attention of my friends. I’m beginning to do some serious marshaling of facts and links for my singles adoption blog. The latter demands new material every week and it’s such an unusual topic, I basically ‘own’ it. This week’s post is unusual in that I’m publicizing my radio appearance this Saturday but last week I curated a lot in terms of orphan hosting programs that are available for singles.
However, the curation talked about by these sites is way beyond what I’ve done. Sites like Storify, Scoop.it, Pearltrees, and Paper.li are aggregation collections. I have tried Storify and found it a bit clunky. Which probably says more about my emerging tech skills than Storify itself because others manage to make it work. The last three on the list are the most interesting but I do wonder about copyright issues: Can people just repeat content without paying for it? As I’ve found out with the adoption blog, creating content (or arranging others’ content) is a ton of work.

Veeka gathering Easter eggs on Easter Sunday

Veeka gathering Easter eggs on Easter Sunday

It is gratifying to writing about something very specific that no one else is doing but at the same time, the number of readers interested in my topic can be sparse. For instance, I’d like to situate myself in a cool city like Seattle or Albuquerque, then start a site and blog that covers religion in that city. The Religion Newswriters Association recently tried that with writers in five small cities where there is no religion coverage. Sadly, they’re giving up the sites because they could not find the funding to continue them past this spring. So I am not kidding myself that there is little money in this sort of thing. One of my friends, Tracy Simmons, whose site in Spokane will be left high and dry when the RNA pulls out is trying to figure out how she can make a living off her site. She just bought a house, so this is a desperate situation for her. If you read this Andy Carvin interview (about how he’s built a following with tweets about Tunisia), notice that he works full time for NPR. Most of us don’t have the spare time to do what he gets paid to do.
But, as one of our assigned readings said, we are moving from a content economy to a link economy whereby the info you gather is worth as much is as valuable as what you write. This post comments that we should not pay news outlets for access to their content but they should pay us for linking to them. That is so ridiculous, I don’t even know where to start with the critique. It takes me half a minute to do a link. It takes a reporter many hours, maybe days to put together a story. Sure there are places that don’t charge for their content but you get what you pay for: Tons of unbelievably obnoxious 30-second video ads to sit through.(See below for the end of this post)

I don't think I've ever gone sleeveless on Easter but it was in the 80s after church.

I don’t think I’ve ever gone sleeveless on Easter but it was in the 80s after church.

I will continue blogging on this site, but this is my last post for the social media class. While trolling the Internet, I found this fascinating post on he said-she said journalism; that is, when a reporter has little time beyond researching the basic facts of the story, he or she ends up just repeating what people say without analyzing or explaining anything. My local Gannett paper – with a skeletal staff – does exactly that. With reporters expected to put out a blizzard of posts, blogs and articles each day, who has the time to do more? And so good journalism vanishes. And lastly, a good speech called the Tigger Talk given by someone who’s been through the mill and hopes those younger than he do not repeat his mistakes. This observation he gives is so true:  Life isn’t about big events. Life is about small events. Very tiny, small events that happen thousands of times a day. Events that don’t even appear to be strung together. Yet these events – these decisions – add up over time and become the sum of our person.

Nashville and the future of journalism

Steve and Veeka at Cheekwood Botanical Garden in SW Nashville

Steve and Veeka at Cheekwood Botanical Garden in SW Nashville

My brother, who’s a columnist for the Oregonian, was in Nashville this past weekend receiving a Wilbur award for his columns (which were noted as ‘religion columns’) which is pretty funny in that he has never been a specialty religion reporter like me. But he had three columns on religion that won one of those stained-glass window trophies that the Wilbur people gave out. I won one in 2003 for something I did at the Washington Times but after awhile the trophy began to gather dust, so I placed the stained glass portion over the grave of my cat. It looked nice there.
Anyway, I drove to Nashville on Saturday so we could have lunch, then wander about Cheekwood Garden, in the southwest part of town. Stephen, who turns 60 this year and I (who am younger but not by that much) were talking about the Future Of Journalism and how much of it is moving at speeds neither of us feel good about. Like the whole ‘personal brand’ thing. Used to be journalists kept themselves out of the typical story because the readers cared about who we were writing about but not about the scribe who was writing it, right? That has all changed according to links like this that talk about how the writer his or herself is now the star of the show. There was one paragraph: “More news organizations are recognizing that their competitive edge comes from having staff members who are subject-area experts the public trusts and relies on.” That I thought was pure bosh because newsrooms have been chasing away their specialists for the past 4-5 years. How many media outlets are really hiring science, religion, fashion, food, travel, environmental or agriculture reporters? The only specialties with traction these days are politics, business, health and education.

Veeka during a hiking trip on the perimeter trail around the University of the South in Sewanee (Tenn.).

Veeka during a hiking trip on the perimeter trail around the University of the South in Sewanee (Tenn.).

We also discussed the Oregonian’s new rule about posting online news several times a day. The Williamette Week describes it here and without divulging confidences, let’s just say no one is thrilled about it. I mean sure, you can steal a headline from Google Trends about “Five Best Ways to Go Naked,” write two paragraphs and watch your readership stats zoom for the next hour, but is this journalism? It all feels like one huge balloon that’s going to pop at some point. Anyway, I bring all this up because one of our social media (class) assignments this week is describe what I’m doing to establish my personal brand online. Hmmm. Well, my brand over the past 30 years has been writing about religion in some form, and doing it well. I’ve been a religion reporter/editor part- or full-time at six newspapers. Most of my freelancing has been somehow connected with that world although I’ve diverged a bit into education reporting for CNN.com. But, with my life segueing from the newsroom to the classroom, is that what I’m all about?
One thing Steve and I have in common is that over the years we’ve written books on mostly obscure topics that only a subset of people care about. He did a graphic novel on the oil mess in the Gulf of Mexico. My best book is on charismatics and people who live in covenant

Veeka and Steve @Cheekwood

Veeka and Steve @Cheekwood

communities. None of that is going to sell as well as a book on Bruce Springsteen. But these were topics we both cared about and which needed writing about. But are they our brands? Usually after writing about a topic, ie my 2008 book on people who quit church (which is still the most popular thing I’ve ever written), I’m done with it forever. I’ve immersed myself in it for years and I Want To Move On.
My take on it all is the same as this 2011 Gene Weingarten column, which is a howler but it’s all too truthful on how branding is ruining journalism. I like Steve Buttry’s take on it all when he redefines branding as as what you have a reputation for. I react better to that. Sooo, what am I good at? When I was working full-time in a newsroom, I was known for breaking a lot of the top – or unusual – stories. TWT really encouraged us to report on what other folks were not reporting on, which is how I broke a lot of unusual stuff, like the Abby Johnson story (she was the Planned Parenthood director in Texas who quit and became a pro-lifer). The story was run in a smaller publication (forget where but I think it was humming among the anti-abortion groups) and I picked it up and made it a national story. And once a story got in the Washington Times, other media would pick it up.

Veeka in a new red dress I found at a yard sale. She LOVES this color - and my cape she was wearing that day.

Veeka in a new red dress I found at a yard sale. She LOVES this color – and my cape that she was wearing that day.

That was a Times specialty: taking obscure stories and bringing them to national attention. I remember how some time after I left the Times, a big story came up about a scandal among a conservative evangelical group in the DC area and I read among some of the bloggers some wistful comments about me. Yes, they were wishing I was back on the beat, because they trusted me in that I knew what I was doing, in contrast to certain other local writers who hadn’t a clue of what evangelicals believed or thought. So I did have a reputation and a brand as someone who ‘got’ how the religious world operated and thought and was able to translate that to secular outlets.

But I’m not working full-time for a news organization now, so don’t have the leisure of working on my ‘brand’ some 8-10 hours a day. If you are teaching college full-time or a full-time grad student, how do you work on your brand? On Twitter, I describe myself as a religion reporter but I also write about adoption, serpent handlers and journalism. Will say that I am still writing about religion for secular outlets, but not as much because I live in the middle of nowhere and I’m in school full time. Anyway, another discussion we’re having in class is on metrics, the science of how many people are clicking on and engaging with your web site. This is not an exact science, as this Columbia University piece points out. But everyone is obsessed with getting readers, engaging with readers and keeping them glued to your site instead of sending them off to HuffPost. One suggestion on getting more readers is to engage them, as this piece in emedia explains. One problem though: this particular article talks about skewing content towards those who are most loyal to you, using the Dallas Morning News as an example. But the DMN, I happen to know, really stung some of their most loyal readers when they deep-sixed the country’s best religion section a few years ago. Dallas is very devout and to just jettison the religion section with the excuse that it wasn’t getting enough ads ( education and politics and other beats don’t pay for themselves either), was crazy and the decision to kill the section turned a lot of locals against the paper for good.

Well, so much to read, so little time. More on metrics can be found here. My other assignment was to ramp up my Linked-In profile. I’ve gotten 441 connections without even trying. Sooo…I’ve started ‘following’ more news organizations and trying to link with VIPs and anyone else who’s interested in me. As for my brand, am still working on that one. I have to create yet another web site in a week or two to showcase my work from an InDesign class, so I get I’d better get cracking on thinking up one.

 

Jamie’s death

Most of the people on our bus trip at Reelfoot Lake wanted to see the bald-headed eagles nests. A ranger (in green) was showing us how

Most of the people on our bus trip at Reelfoot Lake wanted to see the bald-headed eagles nests. A ranger (in green) was showing us how.

The forecast for President’s Day Weekend said it might be in the 60s, so I made a reservation with a bus tour at Reelfoot Lake, a large body of water in the far northwestern corner of Tennessee. Veeka and I would drive there right after church – it was about 74 miles away – snag the early afternoon tour and hopefully see some eagles’ nests. The place was known as a huge sanctuary for many bird populations, including bald-headed eagles that made their home there.
We were bouncing along on an old school bus through snowy fields – apparently this section of Tennessee was somewhat colder than Jackson, I was learning – when I glanced at my iPhone and just on a whim clicked on my email. I saw an email from a friend with a newspaper headline: Jamie Coots was dead.

Not the most complimentary photo, but this is what my daughter took of me as I was frantically working my iPhone on this trip.

Not the most complimentary photo, but this is what my daughter took of me as I was frantically working my iPhone on this trip.

Now I know what they mean about your world going temporarily black when you get bad news. Jamie Coots was one of two co-stars on the reality TV show “Snake Salvation” and an elder statesman (at the age of 42) of the serpent handling movement. I had interviewed him several times and visited his church. As the other people on the trip chattered about seeing various flocks of snow ducks and the occasional eagle, I sat there in a fog.  I could not think. We were 30 miles north of Dyersburg, the nearest city of any size and a good 70 miles north of Memphis, so the Internet was agonizingly slow. I was getting flashbacks to Memorial Day 2012 when I learned that Mack Wolford, another famous serpent handler, had died the night before of snake bite. I called the Washington Post, for whom I’d done a story about Mack several months before. Yes, they wanted a story on the death. I sent them the story Monday night; by Tuesday morning everyone in that newsroom was back from the three-day weekend and someone had decided the story would go atop their Style section. I was told to rework the story. I got it in early that evening and they had it up by 9 pm. For the next 36 hours, it would sit atop their web site. It went all over the world and so did my byline atop it. Only me and the photographer who’d shot the earlier story had contacts in that region, so all the rest of the media could do is quote the Post. It was probably the biggest story of my career. But this time was different. My decision to take Sunday morning “off” from social media had really cost me as tons of reporters were already on the story about Jamie. Because of “Snake Salvation,” images of Jamie were plentiful and lots of media had interviewed him when the show premiered last September. I managed to find a story from WATE TV on my iPhone plus a Facebook post by Cody Coots, the 21-year-old son. Counting backwards, I figured he posted it at about 3 a.m. his time.

This Cody coots dad past away yesterday I’m miss him so much and love him please pray for use we have no live insurance on him if any one has anything to give to help would be greatly appreciate RIP dad i love hope to see you on the other side on day.

Here's a photo I shot of Jamie, in a red blazer, with his wife, Linda, to his left in black. The other folks are friends. This was taken Nov. 15 during Andrew Hamblin's first court appearance.

Here’s a photo I shot of Jamie, in a red blazer, with his wife, Linda, to his left in black. The other folks are friends. This was taken Nov. 15 outside the Campbell County courthouse after Andrew Hamblin’s first court appearance.

The WATE story said that an ambulance had shown up at the church some time after 8 but that Jamie was dead by 10 pm. My goodness, I thought, this was nothing like the agonizing eight to 10 hours it took Mack to die. And what is it about these folks that they always choose to die over a three-day holiday weekend?

I emailed the Wall Street Journal, for whom I’d done four stories September-December about the reality show and the arrest of Andrew Hamblin, the young snake handler who co-starred with Jamie. Sure enough, they wanted a story on Jamie. By the time the bus tour ended and I got home, it was 6 p.m. and the story was nearly 24 hours old. TV crews had shown up at Jamie’s church that afternoon with quotes from Cody and another member known as “Big Cody” Winn. For the next four hours, I worked the phones and combed through Facebook. None of my contacts were answering their phones. Andrew, who had been there when Jamie died, was refusing to do interviews. I’d spent months getting cell phone numbers for folks at these churches, only to have them not pick up when I needed them to. From various media I quickly learned that Jamie had been bitten by a cane break rattlesnake on his right hand; the same hand that had lost a finger several years ago. I called the Middlesboro police and learned they’d gotten the first call around 8:24 p.m., but whoever made the call was not a member of the family. Jamie’s services usually started at 7 p.m., so it’d been well underway by then. According to the Knoxville station WBIR, which seemed to have the most details, Jamie had been bitten on the back of his hand. He dropped the snakes at that point, then picked them back up. After a few minutes, he headed toward the men’s room with Andrew and another handler because he was sick. And then after exclaiming ‘sweet Jesus’ to Andrew, Jamie passed out. At this point, the service must have come to a halt with Jamie being packed up to go home. It took five men to carry him. Cody told the TV station they thought it’d be like before with the eight other bites Jamie had gotten. He’d go home, feel sick for awhile and then get better.

The one photo I shot of Jamie's church - from the front - in August 2012.

The one photo I shot of Jamie’s church – from the front – in August 2012.

Jeff Sharpe, the local police chief who happened to be working when Jamie died, returned my call at about 9:40 p.m. his time. He was plainly exhausted. One of his lieutenants had told me he’d been answering press calls all day, so I was probably #70 at this point. He had some interesting details I’d not gleaned from the TV. When Sharpe arrived at the Coots home, it was full of church members and family holding vigil. Jamie was seated – even though he was unconscious and dying – in his favorite chair. Meanwhile, Linda Coots – his wife – and Cody were signing a form waiving medical treatment.
“He’d already said before they took him home that he didn’t want to be treated,” Sharpe said. “He’d made his feelings very, very clear about what should happen if he was bit.” Officers left the house at 9:10 p.m., he said, and less than an hour later, they were summoned a second time. Coots had died. And so the chief returned with Jason Steele, the local coroner in tow, he told me. I had a feeling that the chief knew that Coots’ death would be a huge deal, which is why he showed up twice at the house but he said that he made it his practice to show up at the scene of every unusual death.
I told the officer a bit about Mack’s death. Sharpe said, “Something made this happen faster than normal.” I asked him how many press have called. “Lord,” he said, “I have no idea.”
I went back to the Facebook feeds. of Andrew and his wife, Liz. In need of prayer, Elizabeth had posted some time around 11:30 p.m. Saturday. I looked at jamie like a daddy figure he has always been good to me and my family.I love u and miss u so much already.
She got several dozen replies and grief-stricken expressions and 227 likes.
I honestly feel like I’m in a bad dream and can’t wake up, she then wrote.

Bumpersticker from car in front of Jamie's church.

Bumpersticker from car in front of Jamie’s church.

Late Saturday night, Andrew posted: really needing everyones prayers tonight. I was there for the last service with him. he was like a dad to me. everyone just keep us all in your prayers. and there will be church tomorrow at 1:00 at tabernacle church of God. remember us when you pray.
About 6 a.m. Sunday Andrew posted: as I set here this morning I try to think of what dad would have said. I miss him so bad. I will never forget how God moved on us last night together for one last time. everyone please keep all of us in your prayers. everyone remember service today at the Tabernacle at 1:00. Mark 16:18 is still forever real. Now Mark 16:17-18 are the verses that serpent handlers quote about believers picking up serpents. The verse does not say they will not get hurt.

Tributes had poured in all day Sunday on Jamie’s Facebook page, which had mushroomed to 2,685 ‘friends’ after ‘Snake Salvation’ ran. At one point, Cody Coots posted a message asking for funds.
Dad passed away yesterday, he wrote. I miss him so much and love him. Please pray for us. We have no life insurance on him. If any one has anything to give, help would be greatly appreciated. RIP dad. I … hope to see you on the other side one day.
A support page for the Coots family had 1,106 “likes” by Sunday night. Fortunately I had been interviewing Jamie here and there over the past two years and had developed quite a respect for him. Those quotes formed the basis of my article, as his home in Middlesboro was 400 miles away and there was no chance I could get there to report from the scene. We had talked in November, which is when he’d told me of the new jobs that he and Cody and his daughter Trina had gotten. He seemed so happy then. He was driving a school bus part time. I got through to the National Geographic spokeswoman who sent me their statement on Jamie’s death. They are planning a tribute to him, she said. I filed the story at 10 pm Sunday and by the time I was up the next morning, it was on the Journal’s web site.

A few more details poured out that Monday, including this report from the Lexington Herald-Leader about Jamie’s last minutes. I realized that reporters must have gone to Jamie’s church on Sunday, then nabbed Cody after the service. That’s the only time I spotted him talking with the press. I got an email, then a phone call from CNN, asking for names and phone numbers and hinting they might need me to speak for one of their broadcasts. I did one radio interview in the midst of a busy day, then sat down that evening to read through Facebook. Liz has posted at about noon that:
the next news media who writes or calls my phone I’m fixing to show them my bad side.sorry jamie is not going to be ur big story and pay day. leave his family alone already !
And … the family asked us not to do interviews or release any info i have to respect his wife son and daughters wishes.
About an hour later, she posted: as I turn over to mark 16:18 its still written in red.the word of God will stand forever. just because jamie is gone doesn’t mean its still not real.I’m still a believer.

Liz Hamblin is the woman in the grey sweater holding a pile of poisonous snakes during this New Year's Eve service six weeks ago. Andrew, her husband, is in the white shirt beside her.

Liz Hamblin is the woman in the grey sweater holding a pile of poisonous snakes during this New Year’s Eve service six weeks ago. Andrew, her husband, is in the white shirt beside her. This is the best I could do with an iPad.

The big news on her mind and that of the 124 people writing on her feed is Westboro Baptist Church’s announcement that they’d be picketing Jamie’s funeral. People discuss which bikers or “good ‘ole redneck boys” they can get to block WBC from getting close to the funeral home.
I know how to scare WBC away, says a truck driver from western Kentucky. Lets all go approach them and offer to hand them a nice fat rattler!!! He then adds: if they go messing with country folks in eastern Ky they will get worse than a beating, Watch the movie Next of kin.
Then, a nurse said – Praise the Lord!!! We just heard back!!!! There are people in route to protect the Coots and the Hamblins from all these horrible people associated with the Westboro Baptist Church!!!
At this point, I switched to Twitter to learn more. Westboro had tweeted: Westboro Baptist ‏@WBCSays Feb 17 WBC will picket funeral of charlatan “Pastor Jamie” Coots, tomorrow, 2/18/14-7:30pm @ Creech FH, 112 S 21st, Middlesboro, KY. Isa 47:10-13.

Tweets poured in, including:
• bo silcox ‏@bosilcox Feb 17
@WBCSays i hope you do come here we the people of middlesboro will run your ass off.
And this one: @WBCSays This is absolutely ridiculous. You pretentious assholes better think twice. I know Middlesboro people won’t put up with this.#smdh.

Of course I was dying to be in Middlesboro for this showdown but I didn’t want to drive 400 miles to the wake and then have someone decide I was only “media” and shut me out of the funeral. I am more than that, but when people are upset, they lash out at whomever’s convenient. Plus, I had an 8-year-old to think of and no one to leave her with. I contacted someone at the Chattanooga paper and they told me they were sending up two reporters and one photographer. I later found their piece on Twitter about what happened Tuesday evening. It sounded like all of Middlesboro turned out for the wake with people lining the main street partly to eviscerate the Westboro people if they dared to show up. They never did. TV crews stayed a respectful distance. WATE wrote this and WBIR filed this report. I got just about all the coverage of the funeral off of Twitter, actually. One thing I’ve found truly bizarre is the near-absence of the Knoxville News-Sentinel from covering this story. All they had from the funeral was this Associated Press story. I couldn’t even find a Twitter presence from them.

The sad conclusion to all this is that Jamie is gone. I can’t say I knew him very well, but he took my calls and clued me in on some of the background stuff going on in his movement. He was compassionate and seasoned; a real pastor. His presence was deeply sought in churches all over Appalachia and I saw the reverence that other people showed him in churches in Alabama and Tennessee; churches he took the trouble to visit even though it was a long drive. I specifically remember one evening in June at the Sand Mountain church where he stood in the middle of the platform and handled several snakes for at least 10 minutes while the rest of us just stared. He had a regal presence and such class. It is not for nothing that the town came to his funeral. As someone called “Poetry Share” said on Facebook: I remembered something brother Jamie Coots once said. He said I had rather die and leave this walk of life from a serpent bite with people standing around me praying as to be in a car wreck with people standing around me cussing. Soooo sounds like Jamie.

Tweeting and Nadia Bolz-Weber

This week was trying out all sorts of stuff on Twitter. Learning it was not easy! I added more people to my list of those I’m following (about 50), mainly people in journalistic and religion reporting fields. Did a search for serpent handlers, but the only entries are by journalists who are covering the topic or by commentators making fun of those who practice handling. The handlers themselves aren’t on Twitter. One of my requirements was to sign onto Vine, a Twitter subsidiary, which creates 6-second videos. You heard me: Six-second videos. Weird. I know. Here is the one I shot of planes at the Denver airport. I also had a class assignment to tweet about eight or nine different things and even interview people on the street. I got the majority of that done, but it wasn’t easy. Trying to cram a quote into 144 words, as you’ll see in my Broncos tweet, was a challenge.

Nadia Bolz-Weber speaking at a music festival last June.

Nadia Bolz-Weber speaking at a music festival last June.

Intermixed with all this was a magazine assignment for which I got to fly to Denver last Friday for a write- up on Nadia Bolz-Weber, a most interesting Lutheran minister who is 6-foot-one, just wrote a very popular book called Pastorixis covered with tatoos and has a very untraditional congregation called House for all Saints and Sinners. While I followed her about the Parkview section of east Denver, I was sneaking in tweets of various locales, ie the coffeeshops she hangs out in, for this class assignment. Doing everything on one’s iPhone is also awkward as all get-out as I’m wedded to my laptop and not to a tiny screen. Once I got all my photos shot and tweets composed, I put it all together in an ensemble called Storify that is like an Internet bulletin board of all your social media about one topic. I just joined Storify on Tuesday and am trying various ways to make it work.

Cover from Nadia's book "Pastorix."

Cover from Nadia’s book “Pastorix.”

While I was doing all this, I was holed up at a local Marriott where I’d type up my notes when not pursuing Nadia to various coffee shops, her CrossFit class, her home and then to a Thai restaurant where I had a few hours to pose questions. But 4 pm Saturday, we were both tired, so I took off to do some shopping at stores that don’t even exist in Tennessee. It being sunny that Saturday, I thought I’d run up into the mountains for a quick ski Sunday morning. Well…I woke up at 6:30 a.m. Sunday to find a huge storm had blown in, several feet of snow was falling on I-70, traffic was already backed up and the wind chill factor at the ski area I was aiming for was -2. And so I chose to relax in my hotel room, finish typing up my notes, watch the Olympics and warm up in a hot tub. Later on I ran into a man in the hotel elevator who said he’d been stuck on the highway for eight hours. I did well to stay in Denver.

And so now I’m back in Jackson as a few snow flakes lazily float through the air. One of our assignments this week was to read Clay Shirky, an NYU prof and media critic whose “Here Comes Everybody” is on our syllabus. He also operates a web site, where he posted this depressing look at high education late last month. I seem to have a talent for entering fields as they’re cutting back. I was in journalism 30 years, the last five of which were filled with cutbacks and lay-offs. Am now in academia, which has seen better days. While sitting in the hotel room Sunday morning, I polished off three chapters with titles like “Everyone is a Media Outlet” (true, depressingly); “Publish, the Filter” and “Personal Motivation Meets Collaborative Production.” The first chapter has to do with what happens to journalists when everyone thinks they can report on and publish news.

I shot this photo of Nadia in June 2012 at the Wild Goose Festival in North Carolina. She is to the right, presiding at Communion.

I shot this photo of Nadia in June 2011 at the Wild Goose Festival in North Carolina. She is in the center in a black tank top, presiding at Communion.

It used to be that journalists were trained and screened in or out through jobs and apprenticeships at smaller media that weeded out all but the most talented and persistent. If you lasted through the first five years at various small-town sweatshops, you then graduated to a Big Newsroom, which is what happened to me. After 6 1/2 years at two small newspapers, I was magically elevated to a post at the Houston Chronicle at the age of 30. Which is why, several years later, I was not amused to see large newspapers (where I eventually wanted to end up) hiring much cheaper people straight out of college and skipping those of us who’d gone through the training. I (and a lot of other babyboomer reporters) were never able to get to the top tier of newspapers for this reason. Most of my friends dropped out of newspapers and went into PR or academia. I hung out at the Washington Times until my 50s. But there was never any debate as to whether I was a journalist. These days, says Shirky, just about anyone with video capability and a blog platform is clamoring for the privileges that it took me and those like me years to earn.

Sign for Nadia's church

Sign for Nadia’s church

Which is why journalists (who are trained) and bloggers (most of whom are not) are at such loggerheads with each other, as NYU prof Jay Rosen points out in this speech. His point is that bloggers are closer to what American media was like during its first 200 years: Opinionated, sometimes horribly wrong but always passionate. Only in the 20th century did objectivity (I’d call it professionalism) enter in, he says. Rosen thinks journalists need to get a life but I’ve been both journalist and blogger and my response to bloggers is that if you want the privileges of journalism, you need to accept its  liabilities, ie lawsuits. The Washington Times had its own legal department to deal with all the people who wanted to sue us and every other newspaper has one too, or at least an attorney within close reach. I’m still waiting for inaccurate bloggers to get hit with some of the lawsuits that newspapers get threatened with. The only reason there’s been so few of them is because bloggers don’t have the deep pockets that newspapers have. (That sounds nasty, doesn’t it? I really don’t want anyone to be sued but I haven’t enjoyed being edged out of an occupation partly because of things that bloggers do).

On a personal note, Veeka was named Student of the Month for January in her 2nd grade class. It was a nice gesture in what's been a very lonely year for her.

On a personal note, Veeka was named Student of the Month for January in her 2nd grade class. It was a nice gesture in what’s been a very lonely year for her.

Shirky also spent an entire chapter on Wikipedia, explaining why such a chaotic mess somehow works. The book is a bit dated in that he doesn’t include the reasons behind Wikipedia’s pleas for contributions.  He does have some interesting theories on “love” as manifested in the Internet. (Wikipedia is a Shinto shrine; it exists not as an edifice but as an act of love, he writes. Wikipedia exists because enough people love it and, more important, love one another in its context.) People work on Wikipedia entries for that reason, he says. Because everyone contributes, it’s a pages magically self-correct themselves thanks to an invisible cadre of editors out there who have the free time to monitor their pet topics. But how does one attract the sort of person who builds up instead of vandalizes? I’m not sure he says.

Anyway, I built a file about my trip in Storify. Click here to see it!

 

Graduation and canoeing

To my delight, Veeka got a trophy the day she graduated from first grade for making A’s and B’s.

Veeka atop Sugarloaf island overlooking Greer's Ferry Lake. It was a tough hike to get to this point.

Veeka atop Sugarloaf island overlooking Greer’s Ferry Lake. It was a tough hike to get to this point.

Considering how her year started out, this is a big accomplishment for her. To celebrate, she and I are doing some traveling, the first port-of-call being north central Arkansas and a place called Fairfield Bay. A kind friend let me use her time share there, so we have had several nights in the Ozarks, a part of the country I’ve not seen before. Our first morning there, we hopped aboard a boat to Sugarloaf Island, which is shaped like a bread loaf. We hiked about the trails there and Veeka did pretty well clambering about, albeit with some complaining about the bugs. The next day, we visited the caverns at Blanchard Springs, then dropped by a dulcimer shop so she could see what one looked like (hard to find those in Jackson, Tenn.) and then wandered through the Ozark Folk Center, which is filled with people doing handicrafts the way they were done a century ago in those parts.

Today, I was driving north when I crossed the Buffalo River and remembered someone telling me on Facebook to try floating down it. One thing led to another and by 1:30 pm, Veeka and I were set up in a canoe, thanks to a canoeing company at the Gilbert General Store. They dropped us off at Tyler State Park and we floated/rowed like crazy for five miles to the pick-up point. Or rather I rowed and Veeka complained about the work, the bugs, whatever. The weather was super pleasant and lots of people were on the river but the wind was against us and our canoe kept on turning around so that sometimes we’d enter the rapids backwards which didn’t appeal much to me. The water was very refreshing and after awhile, Veeka got the hang of it and she never dropped the oar once. The banks of the river were rather pretty and it only took us 3 hours to go 5 miles, which I thought was quite an accomplishment.

My little cutie ready to take on the oar on the Buffalo River.

My little cutie ready to take on the oar on the Buffalo River.

In the midst of all this, I had a very quiet birthday. I also had a huge article in More magazine about women who want to become Catholic priests. I got the assignment last fall and spent two weekends in San Diego, then Louisville researching it, then many, many hours working over various drafts. I described much of my editing working blow by blow to the young women in my magazine and feature reporting class this past spring. Unfortunately, More has not posted it online as of yet, so I cannot link to it, but it was in the May issue. I got to know a lot of women in this movement plus the arguments for and against why/why not on women’s ordination. This having been a fait accompli for several decades in most Protestant denominations, it felt a bit odd to be writing about this in 2012-2013 as still being an issue, but it is a live one that the Vatican is willing to punish severely. Women who are ordained in this fashion are excommunicated quickly and the church rates them as equal to priests who sexually abuse young children. That is, the same Latin phrase is used for both groups; a label that angered many of the women I interviewed. It was not super easy to get church sources on this. Many didn’t want to talk about it or did not get back to me, so I had to work the few sources I had.

40 years of sorrow

Today is the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion in all 50 states. For the first time in 16 years, I will not be in DC during the annual March for Life, which will be this Friday on the Mall. It would have been today except for yesterday’s inauguration and MLK holiday, which threw things off a bit. One huge change is that Nellie Gray, its long-time organizer, will not be around, as she died last year. (BTW, I am including in this post an absolutely brilliant new video on the issue featuring Obama’s words).

I only went to the March three times during my years in Washington, mainly because as a working journalist, I was not supposed to be in any kind of demonstration that had to do with the events or causes that I covered. That was one of the first things I was told at the Washington Times when I went to work there in 1995. And so I stayed away, even though I knew that reporters at other publications took the liberty to attend rallies for their liberal causes and they were never punished for it. Linda Greenhouse’s little incident was only the tip of the iceberg.  Whereas if conservative journalists said one peep about being against abortion, they were out of a job. Not only did this happen to me in 1990, but others were fired as well.The situation got so bad, Charisma magazine did a whole article on it . A newspaper publisher in New Mexico saw that article in 1994 and offered me a job, which is how I became city editor of The Daily Times in Farmington. He has since died, but I will never forget his kindness is helping me get back into journalism, as no one else would hire me because of what had happened at the Houston Chronicle.

Beth Byrd, one of my students, interviews Ross Douthat (far left) when he was at Union a few months ago.

Beth Byrd, one of my students, interviews Ross Douthat (far left) when he was at Union a few months ago.

So, when I went to the March, it was to cover it. The last time I was there was in 2011 when I was tracking Metropolitan Jonah for the Washington Post. The organizers for the March for Life rally despised the media and made it hell for me to get into the celebrity/speaker area to interview folks. Both times, I managed to weasel in but I began to understand why so many reporters disliked the pro-lifers if that’s how they were typically treated. Anyway, I was mulling over this whole issue yesterday as I watched the inauguration and listened to Obama’s soaring words about everyone working together. Fat chance. When Ross Douthat, a New York Times columnist, showed up at Union University a few months ago, he said that Obama has swung to the left instead of the center as Clinton did during his second term. Obama hasn’t even tried to go centrist. I think that folks on the right would be glad to compromise on issues like gun control and the environment, as many conservatives want limits on guns, fracking and so on. But when the left won’t budge one bit on abortion, the right wonders why they should always be the ones to give in on an issue they care deeply about. And so they go far to the right on the economy, guns, etc., figuring that they’ve given more than an inch and have not gotten a thing in return. That is how the left operates, I’ve noticed in my 16 years in Washington. Obama has never stood for any limits whatsoever on abortion and he never uttered a word yesterday about the rights of the unborn child. The Clintons were the same way. They wouldn’t even to agree to outlaw partial-birth abortion, which is as barbaric as it gets.